‘Batman Returns’ (Tim Burton, 1992)
For his high-profile follow-up to the ludicrously popular “Batman” (1989), director Tim Burton had to decide on a new set of villains, a series of elaborate new set pieces and a new setting for the action — Gotham City at Christmastime. From the opening moments of “Batman Returns,” a ghoulish prologue that sets up Danny DeVito’s monstrous Penguin character, the movie is drenched in Christmas: Michael Keaton’s Batman has a romantic verbal tête-à-tête with Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman centered around the dangerousness of ingesting mistletoe, not one but two major sequences are set at the lighting of a Rockefeller Center-like tree (the first one includes an amazing Christmas speech by a seal-slick Christopher Walken), and all of Gotham’s expressionist architecture is drenched in downy snow and twinkling Christmas lights.
‘The Box’ (Richard Kelly, 2009)
Based on a short story by genre legend Richard Matheson, this sci-fi oddity uses its yuletide setting to often terrifying effect. The scenario is deceptively simple: a box with a button in the middle is delivered to the house of an unassuming middle class family (led by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) in the early ‘70s. A deformed man (Frank Langella) named Arlington Steward tells them that if they press the button they will receive $ 1 million cash, but someone they don’t know will be killed. While the short story and TV episode hinged around an ingenious twist (the last person who had the box is the one who is killed), Kelly’s variation sees it as an alien invasion story where the fate of mankind is decided one family at a time. As such, he uses the Christmas lore (of a visitor from another place) to great, abstract effect, wringing a holiday party for all its otherworldly menace and setting up some truly horrible events against the placid, Christmas-light-strewn backdrop of suburbia at Christmastime.
‘Go’ (Doug Liman, 1999)
Hey, there has to be at least one movie on this list that features a character dangling a cluster of mistletoe above his foreign parts. That’s the kind of movie “Go” is — a temporally disjointed, utterly absorbing, multi-pronged story. Here, director Doug Liman, who had previously helmed LA underground culture classic “Swingers,” focuses his attention on the electronic music scene, centering the story around a Christmas-themed rave. Instead of a linear narrative, though, Liman hop-scotches around, getting short story versions of various characters’ crazy lives. It’s a total blast. Katie Holmes, at the peak of her youthful perkiness, gives a great speech about Christmas presents, and Timothy Olyphant, as a ruthless drug dealer, makes a Santa hat look positively bad-ass.
‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
When Stanley Kubrick, obsessive perfectionist, decides to set a movie at Christmas, he makes sure the holiday is represented in almost every frame. Seriously. Almost every scene has a Christmas tree in it, whether big or small. I’m certain there’s some kind of symbolism there, because when Tom Cruise’s character starts to slip into the seedy sexual underbelly of New York City, the presence of Christmas trees decrease. (During the prolonged, nearly NC-17-rated orgy set piece, there’s not a Christmas tree in sight.) When Cruise returns to his wife and young child, it’s in a toy store, which goes hand-in-hand with the holiday. Maybe one day there will be a “Room 237”-style documentary about what Kubrick was trying to say with the Christmas trees. For now, we can just watch the movie again and soak in its opulent yuletide beauty.
‘Die Hard’ (John McTiernan, 1988)
Maybe the mother of all Christmas/not-Christmas movies, John McTiernan’s often imitated, never duplicated classic “Die Hard” is, for some, just as much of a Christmastime staple as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Elf” (it’s better than both, combined, and considerably more violent). “Die Hard” concerns a New York cop who, while visiting his estranged wife’s work Christmas party in an LA high rise, has to save the office from deadly Euro-terrorists (led by an unimpeachable Alan Rickman). In the tradition of Joe Bob Briggs’ drive-in totals, let’s just see if we can quantify “Die Hard” — it’s got a Run DMC Christmas song on the soundtrack, a dead bad guy who has a taunting, Christmas-centered message scrawled on his corpse (“Ho Ho Ho Now I Have a Machine Gun”), a Christmas-tinged score by Michael Kamen (he actually uses sleigh bells), a giant Christmas tree and numerous references to the holiday by various characters. Also, given the recent shuttering of Hostess, it makes the inclusion of a Twinkies subplot even more poignant and timely. A bona fide classic.
‘Gremlins’ (Joe Dante, 1984)
“Gremlins” is a holiday classic for a number of reasons. It was executive produced by Steven Spielberg and seems to be shot through that slightly hazy, idealized lens that Spielberg favored, where the Rockwellian American suburb was a place where all manner of uncanny and supernatural business could transpire. In the case of “Gremlins,” that business involves a furry “Mogwai” named Gizmo who, after a series of unfortunate events, multiplies and gives birth to a bunch of evil “gremlins” that overrun a small American town, killing people and generally making a mess of things. “Gremlins” has a wicked sense of humor and Dante’s playful direction does enliven what could have been an otherwise dreary B-horror movie premise. The film’s Christmas setting adds much to its “be careful what you wish for” theme, and who could forget Phoebe Cates’ amazing Santa Claus speech?
‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ (Renny Harlin, 1996)
Consider this film a representative for all of screenwriter Shane Black’s Christmas-set epics (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), because it might be the most fun and it certainly makes the least amount of sense. Geena Davis plays an amnesiac housewife who, through a series of unconvincing events, learns that she was once a deadly secret agent. Black’s Christmas passions are on display in fine form here, with carolers being hijacked mid-song by a one-eyed madman, Davis dressing up as Mrs. Claus, and a sequence where a character dons a pair of ice skates and, gliding over a frozen lake, shoots a bunch of people. (Plus, Samuel L. Jackson curses a lot.) In short: it’s better than any present that could be waiting for you under the tree. But why not get loaded on eggnog and go all night and watch the other films in the Shane Black Christmas four-pack?
‘Night of the Comet’ (Thom Eberhardt, 1984)
Few consider “Night of the Comet,” an early ‘80s horror-comedy-sci-fi thing about a comet that passes earth and turns most people into dust, as any sort of classic. After all, this was a movie that was advertised as, “The night the teenagers ruled the earth.” But maybe it <em>is</em> a classic. It’s cleverer than you probably remember, has a great soundtrack, a killer ‘80s look (so much neon), and, oh yeah — it <em>totally</em> takes place at Christmas! The titular comet, in fact, which was last seen right before the dinosaurs went kaput, passes earth on Christmas Eve in 1984, and there’s lots of talk of the holiday. Also, after the comet has passed and everyone ends up dead, two of our lead characters go to the mall for an impromptu shopping spree, which exemplifies the lousiest character trait of both the holiday and the decade.
‘Strange Days’ (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
Director Kathryn Bigelow is currently swimming in a sea of praise for her amazing new movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” but back in the mid-’90s she made this really interesting, overlooked science-fiction film about virtual reality that is set in between Christmas and New Year’s. Co-written by her ex-husband James Cameron and “Gangs of New York” writer Jay Cocks, it stars an amiably disheveled Ralph Fiennes as a virtual reality dealer (in the future you can wear a device on your head that records what you see, then you can then sell these records and others can upload them and have your experience. Cool, no?) Of course, a vast conspiracy is uncovered when Fiennes stumbles upon a recording of a real-life murder and then things get positively apocalyptic . There are so many Christmas movies out there, sometimes it’s fun to have a New Year’s Eve movie (preferably one that doesn’t feature interlocking romantic comedy subplots).
‘Christmas Evil’ (Lewis Jackson, 1980)
There’s a whole “holiday horror” subgenre — which includes movies like “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and that Robert Zemeckis-directed episode of “Tales from the Crypt” with the axe murderer dressed like Santa Claus — but the absolute cream of the crop is “Christmas Evil.” Described once by John Waters as his favorite film ever made (Waters even does a commentary on the special edition DVD), “Christmas Evil” is more “Taxi Driver” than “Friday the 13th,” following the psychological downfall of a man (Brandon Maggart) who has been traumatized by Christmas since childhood. Now middle-aged, his house is decked out in Christmas décor and he spies on neighborhood children, noting whether or not they’re naughty or nice. He is most certainly unwell and over the course of the movie’s 100 minutes we see him really get nasty, culminating in a murder spree. “Christmas Evil” is both dark and funny and actually attempts some psychological insight, even if it comes off as cartoony. If you want some blood with your eggnog, it’s the perfect present.